Thursday, 5 March 2015

Review of Maggi Hambling: War Requiem & Aftermath at the Cultural Institute, King’s College London

Maggi Hambling: War Requiem & Aftermath
Cultural Institute, King’s College London
4 March – 31 May 2015

“I can remember hearing Britten’s War Requiem on a record quite soon after it had its premier in 1960-whatever-it-was and I was pretty stunned by it, by its strangeness and its grandeur and its pathos,” says Maggi Hambling (born 1945), speaking of the piece of music which has inspired a whole exhibition, currently on show at the Cultural Institute, King’s College, London. “It was like first hearing Oscar Wilde and that voice coming from another place. It was the same sort of feeling.” Certainly, after sitting through three loops of the extract selected for Room 2 of this exhibition – an installation called ‘War Requiem II’, since the original ‘War Requiem’ is now part of the permanent collection of Aldeburgh Music (on view at Snape Maltings, Suffolk, from 27 March – 3 May) – I understand what she means. Accompanied by Hambling’s thickly painted, tumultuous works, hung in a line around the bare wooden walls, interspersed with mirrors, which bring you into the present, making you somehow complicit in the atrocity, the effect is overwhelming and brought tears to my eyes. The burning and resplendent oranges and yellows echo the male voice singing about “moving, moving into the sun”, capturing both hope and fear. And if you look closely at the smaller paintings, allow yourself to be absorbed, you can start to make out molten faces – “victims”, Hambling labels them – all painted from imagination, yet strikingly real. Once you have seen them, you cannot return to enjoying the glory of the swirling colours, innocent of their reference. The sight of them becomes traumatic, the weight of death and loss unbearable.

“The point is,” Hambling continues, “war seems always to have been and it doesn’t seem to stop. And we all sit there and watch the news on television and it just goes past us: people being killed, houses being burnt and all the rest of it. I still have this belief that oil paint can do something that photography can’t.”

Next door, in Room 1: War, another oil painting captures an intimate image and renders it eternal – two skulls cuddling make clear how, when you really love, you love forever, way beyond “til death do us part”. This all-encompassing aspect of love is further brought to the fore in Room 4: You are the Sea, where, to accompany a large canvas from Hambling’s recent Wall of Water series, a sound installation emanates from a deep well, with the crashing of waves, the roar of the ocean, and the words of a poem she wrote, describing how one dissolves into love, is washed over by it and swept away. You – my lover – are the sea.

The rich and tightly curated exhibition also includes a short video of a bronze called ‘War Coffin’, now held by the Tate and deemed too fragile to be lent out. Reminiscent of a rocking horse, the hanging head-shaped pendulums strike one another as the piece tilts and swings, their clanging echoing the tolling of the death bells in Britten’s requiem, just audible through the wall. The ghostly movement, apparently without human intervention, could perhaps be the work of a hand beyond the grave?

And then there is Aftermath. This is represented by an extensive collection of strange bronze shapes, placed on plinths, the length of the hallway and in a final, eerily lit, side room. These disturbing effigies, painted in luminous colours, stand to attention like soldiers – or fallen soldiers’ graves in a cemetery. They are cast from found pieces of dead wood, whose gnarled shapes spoke to Hambling and conjured up associations. They speak, she says, of “a time after war or after death”. There are animal heads, fleshy slabs of meat, a baby elephant, a drowning polar bear. They represent things Hambling feels strongly about (such as the melting of the polar caps), but, she insists, “the titles are only suggestions really. That’s why I’ve used small, not capital letters. People can see whatever they want to in them.” Freud would probably have had a field day. They are the building blocks for dreams – or nightmares – they are, in Hambling’s words, “those mysterious things that remain.” After experiencing the works in this exhibition, there are many things, which remain. Its powerful impact, like the wave of an ocean, has left a resounding aftermath in both my heart and soul.

The monograph Maggi Hambling: War Requiem & Aftermath, by James Cahill is available from Unicorn Press, rrp £30.


Victim XXX
oil on canvas
12 x 10 inches
© Maggi Hambling
photograph by Douglas Atfield

Wall of Water XIII, war
oil on canvas
78 x 89 inches
© Maggi Hambling
photograph by Douglas Atfield

Aftermath (Polar bear drowning)
bronze primed and hand coloured
h24 x w34 x d31cm
© Maggi Hambling
photograph by Douglas Atfield

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